Thirteen years ago, I was teaching “bioethics and moral decision-making” at an all-girls’ preparatory school in Washington, D.C.
Every day, we dug deep into important questions: What does the Church believe on moral issues and why does she believe it? How convinced am I of the Church’s reasoning and conclusions? And if I am convinced, how should it change the way I live?
I have been thinking about my teaching days a lot, in light of the recent controversies in the Church.
When I started out in Church communications, as a diocesan communications director and bishops’ spokesperson, the media landscape, religious and secular, looked a lot different.
Those were the days before Substack, podcasts, and YouTube had become ubiquitous.
Catholic media consisted of diocesan newspapers, some national Catholic newspapers, and Catholic radio and TV stations aimed at people in the pews, and publications aimed at Church professionals, such as Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter.
Only a few priests and bishops had ventured onto Twitter at that time, and very few would have dreamt of swapping out prepared public statements for a 240-character personal take on a topic.
Today, the dopamine hit that follows Twitter retweets drives not only news about the Church but decisions made by Church officials.
The proliferation of media platforms has confused and conflated journalism, commentary, and hearsay. What Catholic media is, let alone what it should be used for, is up for grabs. It’s a no rules, no-holds-barred kind of world.
How we got here is complicated. Clearly, the technological revolution of recent decades, which fosters addictive habits and preys on our narcissism, has contributed to it. So has the culture’s reduction of Catholicism to its moral teachings and the relentless politicizing of those issues.
Which brings me back to why I have been reflecting on my teaching days. Over time, I realized the most persuasive pedagogy is to demonstrate the consistency and integrity of Catholic teaching and moral reasoning. How the Church arrives at moral judgments is as important — and sometimes more convincing — than the judgments themselves.
More important was to understand how the Church’s moral and social teachings reflect and shape the Church’s sacramental life and spiritual practices, and her view of human nature and human destiny.
This “bigger picture” is what we’re losing in Catholic media. I fear that in their quest to promote or preserve the Church’s moral teachings, theologians and journalists too often set aside the Church's rich and nuanced traditions of moral reasoning. Moreover, the lines separating journalist, communications professional, and theologian have grown unclear.
Take the widely reported story of the resignation of the general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a news story set in motion by The Pillar, a Substack publication run by two Catholic canon lawyers-turned-journalists.
Driven by their expressed desire to ensure that a priest overseeing the Church’s response to protection of minors was living up to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, the Substack founders “de-anonymized” Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill’s cellular data after concluding he was likely engaged in illicit sexual behavior (although these allegations have yet to be proven).
Writing in Angelus, Msgr. Richard Antall rightly asked if they had considered their own actions in light of the Church’s moral teaching and reasoning. Specifically, he questioned whether they had crossed the line into calumny and detraction, and ignored the Catechism’s counsel to read our neighbors’ actions in the most merciful and charitable light.
Others have legitimately questioned the morality of amassing personal cellphone data and making it public. Though The Pillar defended its actions as legal, not everything that is legal is considered moral by Catholic standards. Catholics do not subscribe to the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism. For us, the ends can never justify the means, as good as those ends might be.
Take another controversy that continues to make its rounds in Catholic media — the U.S. bishops’ declaration that abortion is the “pre-eminent” moral issue in our country today.
Critics of the bishops — in the academy and in the Catholic media — often invoke a passage from Pope Francis’ exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”): “Our defense of the innocent unborn … needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
What the critics fail to point out is that in acknowledging manifold threats against human life and dignity in the world today, the pope in no way lessens the imperative to protect unborn children.
In fact, in calling abortion a “pre-eminent priority,” the bishops are simply applying traditional Catholic moral reasoning. Following St. Thomas Aquinas, when the Church evaluates a moral action, she looks at the action’s object (what is done), the intentions of the person taking the action, and the circumstances in which the action takes place.
Because actions that involve the direct killing of human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, always have an object that is immoral, they are considered intrinsically evil and some of the gravest sins. They rank, therefore, first among many, which is not to say they are the only ones the Church has an imperative to address.
Driven by laudable goals, a rising number of threats to human dignity and against the backdrop of a divisive 2020 presidential election, many Catholics in the media nonetheless did a disservice to the public by conflating reasonable and proper debates about these other threats with a moral judgment of abortion that set aside the Church’s own evaluative framework.
I’m not sure where these trends are going to lead us. I do know that if I were still in the classroom, I would have a hard time convincing my students that the Church’s moral teachings were true, less because of the logic and reasoning used, but because Catholics with public reach are failing to apply them.